Byron Johnson, a 26-year-old Milwaukee native reflects on why he is still looking for a job three years after graduating college. Johnson is a minister and lead facilitator for the Frank Zeidler Center For Public Discussion.
I am convinced — it’s not here. It just doesn’t exist in Milwaukee. In addition to myself, I can probably also speak for a slew of other 21- to 35-year-olds who look for freedom and confidence in a secure, profitable, advancing career here in Milwaukee. I just don’t see it.
“Thank you for your interest, but we have decided to pursue other candidates at this time. Best of luck in your career.” If you are like me and heard this phrase or read it in an email at least 100 or more different times within the past two or three years, it makes you begin to ask yourself, “Is starting another job application worth it or am I just wasting my time?”
No matter how nice it’s put, rejection always comes with its swarm of mental questions, shock and even the moment of trying to imagine how the more “qualified” person they look for is better equipped than you. In my mind, my first wonder is if the person is white. I wonder if that person has more cultural and social access than I have in this community. I become curious to know if this more qualified person has a privilege that they were born with that makes them not have to work so hard.
As a young black male, I must consider the inequalities and racial value gaps that exist in the city of Milwaukee. Growing up, I would hear, “The system is rigged for black folk.” Or, “You know white people control everything.” I was even taught as a black boy, that in order to reach my goals and make something of myself, it is imperative for me to work twice as hard, again, “because you know this system is set up for black people to fail.”
So, after finishing high school in Milwaukee, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Pastoral studies from an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in Nashville, Tennessee. Afterwards, I moved back home to Milwaukee hopeful this hard work would result in opportunities to begin building a career. Three years later, it still hasn’t happened.
When I attend job fairs or interviews and I offer copies of my resume, the two most common responses I get are, “What is your degree in?” and “Why is there so much movement on your resume?” Now, I know that of all studies and degrees out there, Theology may not be the most lucrative in immediate money-making potential. However, through the experience of that major, I was able to pick up pretty thorough experiences in social work, community outreach, non-profit operation and project management, prison outreach and even education. Pretty solid career building experiences right? In the future, I see myself pastoring a church, however I still have yet to move out of mom’s house and get on my own two feet. I need a stable career to do that. Plus, I don’t feel that settling for just anything that comes my way or only minimum wage opportunities will get me where I want to be. I mean, after all, I do have a college degree.
Since November 2013, after relocating back to Milwaukee, the only employment opportunities that availed themselves to me have been temporary assignments with staffing agencies. Most of these assignments last less than six months, while some positions only lasted two or three weeks. And that’s it. This is crazy! As it is also depressing, frustrating, and sheds light on how people see my career history only on paper and don’t know the story. But what else can I offer if this is my truth? How else do I explain my career path without being judged? Or do I just have to look for a more inviting community elsewhere, that has more opportunities for people like me?
I guess the biggest lesson I am beginning to learn from this roller-coater life experience is that, sometimes you just may have to step out on your own, and create something for yourself. To create your own opportunities. But you need a starting point, and what fuels the motivation for this just may be frustration and desperation. Everything in life happens for a reason.